Addressing PR’s problematic reputation

In a recent speech, PR luminary Harold Burson said that Richard Nixon, during the Watergate scandal, contributed to the negative perception of PR when he referred to “PR flacks” and used PR as an equivalent term to spin or manipulating public opinion: “We will have to PR that…”

Since then, public relations has been vilified in the media and popular imagination as supporting the powerful at all costs and promoting corrupt business practices that are not in the public interest. This is a sad state of affairs that needs to be addressed.  As far as I see it, there are two ways to do this.

1. Defend and self-blame.

  • Institute ever stricter ethical constraints,
  • Issue position papers on the virtues of PR, etc.

2. Build our prestige and status.

  • Seek regulation and professionalization,
  • Promote the value that PR adds for relationship-building and winning in the court of public opinion.

If you examine law, the sister profession of PR: it operates in the court of law, its practitioners are not widely trusted or admired, but it granted status and is respected because it is perceived to be :

  • a difficult profession in which to excel;
  • a powerful profession populated by smart, powerful and influential people;
  • prestigious academic programs from strong schools lead to the profession; and
  • access to the practice is regulated officially.

We know that continuing to work on increasing PR ethics and professional standards is crucial, but it is not enough. I think that PR wins by adopting option two: building prestige and status for the profession.

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